When Manchester City take to the Santiago Bernabeu pitch for Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid they put into action a gameplan eight years in the making. The Abu Dhabi-owned club have sights on one day becoming an elite team, and this is where elite teams can be found.
Now they must make it stick. This season cannot be a one-off for City, who have spent the best part of £1 billion in their efforts to crack the Champions League. The competition’s semi-finals must be the minimum requirement if they are to truly establish themselves as a giant of the European game.
It is for this reason that City still have some way to go if they are to achieve that long-standing objective. Schalke made the Champions League final four back in 2011, for instance - would they consider themselves a member of the continent’s elite? Sustained Premier League success has put them at the top of the domestic foodchain, but in Europe much progress is yet to be made.
In fact, Manchester City won’t be considered members of European football’s elite until they have won the Champions League. That is the target they have set for themselves and they won’t have fulfilled on their promise until the trophy with the big ears is residing at the Etihad Stadium.
And thus Manuel Pellegrini is tasked with guiding his side past Real Madrid - the ultimate elite team - at the Bernabeu on Wednesday evening. A goalless draw in the first leg has left the tie finely poised, giving City a genuine chance of making the final. This is the kind of opportunity the Premier League side has been waiting for.
In Pellegrini City have the perfect man for the job, as well - a particularly ironic fact given the Chilean’s impending departure at the end of the season. He spent a season (2009/10) in charge of Real Madrid and possesses in depth knowledge of the Spanish game. Pellegrini has even implied that he has spies feeding information on the Galacticos to him.
“I always try to have as much as information about the opposition before every game. And when we had the team meeting on the morning of the Madrid game, I told the players that Ronaldo would not be playing,” he after the goalless first leg. “I understand what happens with Real Madrid and I know about Cristiano’s injury, and that maybe it is not a big injury.
“But it is difficult for them to take a risk because they don’t know if he will play for just five minutes and then they lose him for the rest of the season. What happens in the next four days will make them decide - and if Ronaldo has any chance of playing then they will take it. And I will know.”
Pellegrini’s tactical blueprint must account for all that Real Madrid can offer, even if Ronaldo does miss the match through injury. City showed in the first leg, and against Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-finals, that they can manage a game at this level. They must do the same in the Spanish capital.
It is perhaps somewhat ironic that City find themselves at this juncture at this time. They are on the brink of an overhaul this summer, with incoming new manager Pep Guardiola surely set to mould the club’s squad in his own sporting identity. There will be new arrivals at the Etihad Stadium, and departures too, ahead of the 2016/17 season. City’s most effective European team could be about to be dismantled.
But standing in football is about more than just one group of players or one season. Reputation is built over time and Man City have much work to do in that respect. So whilst making the semi-finals, and even possibly the final, represents progress it doesn’t quite signify a dramatic shift of status. It will take more than a gameplan for that shift to eventually happen. It will take more than just one Champions League semi-final appearance, too.